Fat Biking in Northern Finland
Another chance to go back to Finland... I have always enjoyed going to Finland and feel at home with the quirkiness of the country. I like the fact that things which are considered different or even strange in the U.K such as frequent sauna use, eating reindeer meat, a right to roam freely in the countryside and industrial levels of personal berry consumption are normal and part of being a Finn.
A few years ago, I completed the Finland Ice Marathon in Kuopio on a traditional Finnish Kicksled and have toured around the country fairly extensively. I still check on Finnish news in English and keep an eye out for happenings in the country such is the fascination I have with the country.
I seem to retain facts about Finland like a sponge, have been to the Finnish Embassy in London for evening receptions and find periods in Finnish history such as the Winter War of 1939-40 against the mighty Soviet army truly fascinating. Fat biking from the Martinselkonen Wilds Centre...
In November 2016, I was offered a place on the VisitFinland cycling ‘fam trip’ to Northern Finland to tour around the area near Suomussalmi on fat bikes. The daily rides would be based at the Martinselkonen Wilds Centre on the Finnish/Russian border in the remote Finnish wilderness. The routes would then form a winter cycling holiday sold by Wheel2Wheel Holidays.
‘Wilderness’ is a term that is thrown around quite loosely in travel, but there is almost nothing else around in this corner of Finland except millions of pine trees, deep snow and the 1340km border trail marking the eastern edge of the EU and Russia’s western front.
Coming from a culture where you can nip out to Tesco at all hours of the day to buy anything, going from having everything on your doorstep to nothing is quite a culture shock. Being out in Suomussalmi province is almost like being in an episode of Ben Fogle’s ‘Lives in the Wild’ programme.
Onwards to Northern Finland...
We were an international group from all around Europe from different backgrounds, however, I flew from Manchester on Finnair with Hannah, a journalist from the leading mountain bike magazine - SIngletrack.
The flight was rather uneventful and after a quick dash through Helsinki to the internal flights' area, we boarded a small turboprop for the hour hop up to Kajaani. As we landed in the small airport in the lower ‘north’ of the country, we noticed an immediate change in temperature, snow on the ground and ice on the runway. We realised that there was a two-hour drive up to the Wilds Centre in the dark and on icy, snowy roads.
Driving with challenging terrain is fairly normal for people living this far north and it is no surprise that Finland has produced a disproportionately high number of the professional rally and Formula One drivers! After the minibus transfer, we pulled into the Martinselkonen Wilds Centre that up to the early 1990s was the border guard station separating Finland and Russia.
Staying in a converted Finnish Border station...
The current owners are part of the family that manned the station during the Cold War and have turned the centre into one of Europe’s best places to watch bears and cubs in their natural summer habitat.
Like the bears, the centre goes into hibernation over winter and Riina along with husband Jaani decided to use the extensive cross-country ski trails that traverse the dense forest to offer fat biking experiences. This was my first time on a fat bike and I was feeling quite nervous about riding one. However, my fears were soon to be unfounded.
We picked up the bikes on Saturday and had a few hours to familiarise ourselves with them using the road and ski routes that pass in and around the centre. The wide tyres provide grip whilst the rest of the bike is fairly similar to a mountain bike.
The Finnish made fat bikes have 24 speeds and I was amazed that despite being covered by ice and temperatures reaching -10, the gear changes were seamless and the disc brakes were excellent.
Learning how to use a 'Fat Bike'...
After doing a short 10km loop on Saturday morning, I realised that I needed to let out the air in the tyres to create more drag on the slippery snow. Riding a fat bike actually requires a good level of bike handling skill and one of the more challenging aspects is avoiding the ‘lips and kerbs’ that form in the snow and can cause the tyres to slip or ridge.